Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images
the national interest

Trump’s Fixation on 2020 Is His Best Strategy to Win

The idea that Trump’s big lie is hurting himself is a convenient myth.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

From time to time, a point of view will make its way from the mouths of official sources to the ears of reporters often enough that it takes on the status of official fact. One such claim you have probably come across is the belief that Donald Trump is sabotaging his own campaign by obsessing over the 2020 election.

Trump “remains fixated on the ‘stolen’ 2020 election” notes an aside in Jonathan Swan’s harrowing report on Trump’s plans to impose political discipline on the bureaucracy: “He cannot stop talking about it, no matter how many allies advise him it would serve his political interests to move on.” This notion often lurks in the background of political reporting on the Republican Party. “Those Republicans who support Trump but are one step away from his inner circle find the scene that unfolded Tuesday night to be counterproductive,” reports one typical passage in Politico. “At a time when the ex-president could be focused on propelling the Republican Party toward the upcoming elections, Trump is still anchored down by conspiracies and anger over losing the last one.”

The idea that Trump is harming himself is passed off as an undeniable fact. And it is almost certainly true that Trump’s election conspiracies are harmful to the interests of the Republican Party. People loyal to the party are trying very hard to convince Trump that it is also harmful to him. And yet, if you think carefully about it, Trump seems to be wise to ignore the advice pouring in from his party.

Enormous mental energy, and innumerable visits to small-town diners, have been invested into the mystery of the Republican base’s attachment to Trump. The answer I find most persuasive, and which also explains his behavior, is that Trump sold himself as a fighter and a winner. The conservative media spent years convincing its audience that the Republican Party was led by weaklings who were allowing the country to be stolen from them by a truthless enemy. Trump, by virtue of his lack of virtue, would smite them. Conceding that he lost the election would destroy his core attribute.

You can already see this argument taking shape in the prospective Republican nominating contest. An aide to Mike Pence tells the Washington Post that the former veep “would likely make the point that Trump is the only person who lost to Biden.” For Trump to concede this point — to admit to being a loser — would be devastating to his candidacy. That’s why he can’t concede it.

If Trump instead maintains the election was stolen, then the question for Republicans going forward becomes which candidate will take the necessary steps to ensure Democrats don’t steal the next election. Here Trump has the strongest argument: He is the most dedicated champion of what Republicans call “election integrity” and the most willing to dispense with procedural niceties — such as the rule of law in the pursuit of victory.

Obviously Trump’s claim that the election was stolen is false. As a matter of morals, his strategy is horrifying. But as a matter of strategy, it seems to be correct. After all, a supermajority of Republicans believe Trump’s lie. And if you believe it, you are perfectly rational to select a candidate who will acknowledge the crime and do everything to prevent it from reoccurring.

Rather than operating from weakness by conceding the premise he lost, Trump’s stolen-election lie turns the subject into a partisan loyalty test. Pence is going to flunk that test. Ron DeSantis has tried to evade it, stoking generalized concerns about election integrity and refusing to say whether Joe Biden legitimately won the election but declining to overtly endorse Trump’s lie.

Reporters have given up trying to get a straight answer out of him, but if Trump makes this a central dispute in the 2024 primary, his dissembling will become more difficult. At some point, his slipperiness will make him look like a weasel. DeSantis has a very strong chance to defeat Trump — I would even call him the favorite — but Trump’s fixation on 2020 is probably DeSantis’s greatest liability.

The Republican Party, after briefly recoiling from January 6, made a strategic decision not to confront Trump over his efforts to secure an unelected second term. They went so far as to strip Liz Cheney of her leadership position over her crime of continuing to challenge Trump’s election lies. They ceded the field of battle for Republican opinion with utterly predictable results.

Having given up on trying to convince their own voters Trump is lying, the party is instead trying to convince Trump to stop lying to them. If you put aside what’s good for the country — which, in the case of analyzing Trump’s behavior, is the safest possible assumption — he has no reason to do that. Trump’s best and perhaps only chance to regain power is to press his frontal attack on democracy and count on his party to submit. History has given him little reason to believe he will fail.

Trump’s Fixation on 2020 Is His Best Strategy to Win